On being 72 and what I’ve learned…

birthday cake with lit candles

Psalms 90:10 – ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.’

Well, at least I’ve made it past the three score and ten but I am always conscious that I might ‘fly away’ any day. This got me thinking about what wisdom I might have gleaned over the years. This is probably not going to be the longest post that I’ve ever written as I’m not sure how much I’ve really learned. But here we go anyway –

Todays headlines are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers

To explain to non-UK readers, when I was young and I went to my local fish and chip shop, I would order several meals for my extended family and, while these would be individually wrapped in fresh white paper, the whole order would then be consolidated and wrapped in several sheets of old newspapers. It’s an old saying that means that whatever you might think is important or sensational right now, it will soon be just old news relegated to wrapping fish suppers.

Lesson learned is that whatever you might find that’s upsetting or worrying right now is unlikely to last very long. Everything changes, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better, but nothing ever stays the same. Life is like roller coaster so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Go with the flow

I have read that the origin of this lies with the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, but it became quite popular during the hippy period and that’s when I heard it first. However, I don’t think that I truly understood its meaning until these last few years. Going with the flow is not being lazy, it’s what you do after you’ve done everything you can to influence matters for the better. When things don’t go the way you want, the most important thing is to keep a peaceful mind. Also, very often the flow might actually be right and you can then find that swimming against it has not been only energy sapping but just plain wrong.

Lesson learned is that sometimes the easiest path isn’t always the worst, do what you can and then leave it ‘in the lap of the Gods’. Remember the words of that great philosopher Bobby McFerrin, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’

Anger is corrosive and harmful

I heard something one day on the radio said by a Buddhist priest that made me pull the car over and listen. I actually put the story in one of my books The Tiger’s Back. It goes like this –

‘A man had a son who he loved dearly. He had worked hard to build up a business to hand on to his son and he had great plans for him. He was going to get married, have lots of children and found a dynasty. However, the son had other ideas. He was a thoughtful, spiritual boy and he decided that he wanted to give up everything and become a monk. So, he climbed to the top of the mountain and asked the Lord Buddha if he could become a monk and spend the rest of his life in quiet contemplation.
This man, when he heard that his son had been accepted as a monk, felt great anger. It meant that his son could never marry or take over the family business as he had planned. So, he decided that he was going to climb up the mountain to give the Lord Buddha a piece of his mind and then make his son see some sense. With every step up the mountain his anger grew and he was pretty much at boiling point by the time he came across the Lord Buddha sitting under a tree.
The man let him have it. He shouted and screamed and cursed at the top of his voice but the Lord Buddha just sat there unmoved.
When the man had run out of things to say he looked at the Lord Buddha and said, ‘Haven’t you got anything to say to me?’
The Lord Buddha said, ‘If you had brought me a present of a box of mangoes all the way up the mountain and I said that I couldn’t accept them then what would you do?’
The man thought about this and said, ‘Well, I suppose that I’d just have to bring them back home with me.’
The Lord Buddha smiled and said, ‘I do not accept your anger.’
He then smiled, closed his eyes and went back to his meditations.’

I sat there for a time wondering what this meant. Then I remembered something that had happened a few days before. I was driving down the motorway when, at 70 miles an hour, a car pulled right up behind another car and started flashing his lights and beeping his horn. The driver was obviously angry at being slowed down. The driver in front gave way and then speeded up again, got in front of the car that had overtaken him and then slowed right down again. The anger had spread from the first driver to the second and then to many more drivers as the two of them weaved in and out of the traffic. I discovered then that anger can be like a virus. It can destroy your peace and make you do stupid and, sometimes, dangerous things. But unlike a virus, it is your decision whether to let it in or, like Buddha, you can choose not to accept it and keep a peaceful mind.

Lesson learned is that anger is to be avoided at all costs. Decisions taken in anger will always be wrong and, very often, the only person who really suffers from your anger is yourself.

Forgiveness is the most important thing that you can do to help you

In truth, as we are all human beings, there are times when we will all get angry but there is an antidote – forgiveness. Now, I can imagine what some people would make of this, they would deride forgiveness as namby-pamby, being a snowflake and somehow unmanly. These are people who like to nurse and feed their anger which is crazy. Doing this is like nursing a stomach ulcer instead of having a doctor do something about it. Forgiveness does not necessarily have to involve the person or thing that you are angry at, it is something you do within and for yourself. You can apply this to many everyday situations that can lead to anger as I write in one of my posts Why It’s Always Best To Not To Think The Worst

Lesson learned is that when you truly forgive, the anger magically disappears and your peace is restored.

Perspective is everything

This is probably the most important lesson of all. Untold misery is caused to people when situations are not framed correctly or are viewed from the wrong perspective. These incorrect perspectives are often due to our beliefs, often long-held, but any belief we have has to be constantly challenged. A belief that may have had value in one time and context can often be of no value in another. For instance, when I first started dating, I was led to believe that it was good manners to open doors for a woman, not sit down until she was seated and to pay for all the food and drinks while out on a date. Nowadays, many women would find this attitude very patronising and they would be right. However, there was some value in paying for everything on a date as, in my day, many women didn’t even earn half what men were paid and very often for exactly the same work. Things change.

So, try and think about what is causing you such negative emotions as fear, anger, sorrow, regret or disappointment. Is it the thing itself or your belief that is responsible for your mental conflict?

Having realistic perspectives on situations that crop up in our lives is a truly great gift. Look at the photo above of a set of stairs. From the camera’s perspective, the stairs appear to only go down. If the photo was taken from the bottom, the stairs would appear to only go up and, if taken from the middle, the stairs would go both up and down. Each of these perspectives are real and valid, yet, in life we often only consider one perspective and that can prove to be both unhealthy and destructive. A small example of this happened during Covid.

My wife, unfortunately, has had many hospital appointments for blood tests and ongoing treatments. I often used to sit in the hospital with her during these but, during Covid, I was no longer allowed to. This meant that I had to sit in the car waiting for an indeterminate time for her test or treatment to be completed. I was dreading what I perceived as being a total waste of time. I couldn’t go inside and there was no point in going home as it was quite some way away from the hospital, so I just sat there and thought. However, I found it strangely calming after a while and then I started thinking about a problem that I had with the plot line of one of my books. I was able to tease it apart and then some new ideas occurred to me. I found that I couldn’t wait to get back home and get on with the book. So what I had previously framed as being ‘a waste of time’ became ‘valuable time for thinking about my books’. It would have saved me some angst if I could have come up with that perception before the event.

So, if something is bothering you, challenge your beliefs and how you perceive the problem. You might even find that the real issue was in how you perceived the problem all along.

Wow! That was quite a bit longer than I thought it would be. It is also something of a surprise that most of the above is about anger, beliefs and perceptions. Maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised though. While there is a real world out there, it’s what we perceive of it that makes the difference.

To quote a poet and revolutionary politician…“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”― John Milton, Paradise Lost

So, try and change the world for the better but you can also change your beliefs and perceptions. And always remember that, if you do fall off the tightrope of life, it’s sometimes okay to just go with the flow.

(Thanks to Dieterich01 for the photo)

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